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Biology and maths are offered at A level, but as you’d expect, the arts and humanities predominate. We dropped in on a delightfully lively and sparky year 13 politics lesson where the students were all very ready to speak up, and the standard of contributions was informed and thoughtful. Young people here are engaged full time in what at other schools is usually peripheral – film, fashion, music, art, drama - so there isn’t the demand for off-timetable activity... 

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What the school says...

Fine Arts College was founded in 1978 as an independent sixth form college specialising in the study of Arts and Humanities. Today the College offers a wide choice of subjects at GCSE and A level as well as a two-term Portfolio Course for students preparing for art school entry. The College is rated 'Outstanding' by Ofsted.

The College is located in a characterful part of Belsize Park with the main site situated in a secluded courtyard away from the bustle of the street. The courtyard buildings, originally a Victorian dairy, are modern and light-filled and comprise a series of lecture and tutorial rooms alongside art, drama and music studios. The College also houses specialist studios for photography and media studies nearby. Each of the tutorial rooms has its own extensive subject library including books, slides and DVDs.

The College functions on an ethos of mutual respect where an individuals talents and ambitions are encouraged and nurtured. For this reason the number of students is restricted to no more than 160, maintaining small class sizes and strong pastoral care for all students and ensuring an exceptional pass rate in exams. Virtually all students go on to higher education at a range of universities and art, music and drama schools.

Fine Arts College provides an opportunity for young people to study in a mature, open and stimulating atmosphere; a unique bridge between school and university.
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What The Good Schools Guide says

Principal

Candida Cave (50s). Elegant, quietly spoken, compassionate and creative, a lovely lady. Attended Ruskin School of Art, Oxford, then started teaching art and art history when a flatmate fell in love with an Italian racing driver and needed someone to take on her tutees. Quickly discovered she had a flair for teaching, and soon had 20 more students. Set up Fine Arts College as a part-time concern in 1978 with artist and co-founder Nicholas Cochrane in rented rooms at the YMCA in Great Russell Street; then in 1982 took the plunge and opened a full-time school in a house in Belsize Park. School moved to its present site in 2002.

Until very recently she was still actively involved in teaching at the school, and still teaches on study trips and lectures. Painting is her passion, and she has exhibited in various galleries in London and elsewhere. Also a keen theatre and concert goer. Married to Stephen, a historian and writer, she has a grown up son and daughter (the latter now head).

Attributes success of school to its founding ethos: ‘We wanted to have the sort of college that we ourselves would have liked. We wanted a holistic education, where the arts were as important as academic subjects. We wanted a co-operative, self-motivated style of learning. And we wanted to know everyone’s name.’ Parents agree. ‘I have nothing but praise for Candida, and the atmosphere she creates in the school is so positive,’ commented one.

Her daughter, Emmy Schwieters, has been head of the college since 2019. Read English and history of art at Leeds, and worked in the hospitality industry before joining Fine Arts in 2003, taking on the roles of head of the history of art department and director of studies.

Academic matters

In 2019, 17 per cent A*/A and 48 per cent A*-B grades at A level. At GCSE 27 A*-A/7-9 grades. Biology and maths are offered at A level, but as you’d expect, the arts and humanities dominate, along with economics and business studies and an excellent range of languages (take-up for Italian is high). Teaching groups are small, allowing for a seminar-style delivery of the course. The approach relies for its success on students’ chattiness and willingness to participate, but that’s clearly not a problem here. We dropped in on a delightfully lively and sparky year 13 politics lesson where the students were all very ready to speak up, and the standard of contributions was informed and thoughtful. Nearly 30 subjects on offer to sixth formers, and it’s possible to do entirely art-based options: we met a student who was revelling in being able to study fine art, graphic design, photography and fashion/textile design. ‘My previous school could only offer me art. This is brilliant!’ Most students still take four subjects and drop one after year 12. EPQ also available. School also offers a one year A level course, often taken by those who have done a year of the IB and decided it’s not for them.

Since 1994 school has taken students into years 10 and 11 in response to parent demand. It provides both a conventional two-year and an intensive one-year GCSE course, the latter offering a lifeline to able students who have nonetheless struggled in more academically pressurised environments. In September 2018 the first year 9s joined the school: just one small cohort of 10 pupils when we visited. The lessons we saw were very quiet, reflecting perhaps the kind of children that at this age would prefer this eccentric and artsy little school, but pupils said they appreciated the very high level of individual attention they received and seemed glad to be here. At GCSE most students do eight or nine GCSEs, including three arts subjects and one science, biology, which is now taught in purpose built lab (rather than an ordinary classroom).

Drama is very popular and taught in the school’s ‘big space’ – which, truthfully, isn’t that big – and is extremely popular at all levels, and it’s probably no coincidence that the school has as many successful performing alumni as artistic ones. Music and music technology taught in purpose built room that pulses with purpose. But naturally it’s the art rooms that really impress. Light, peaceful, littered with classical busts, the creativity here wafts over you like a Mozart aria. Even the skeleton used for teaching purposes was in the throes of ecstasy instead of the normal demure pose. We paused to admire a sculpture of Laocoön fighting off the serpents that students were copying in order to produce a monochrome portrait, using tone rather than colour to create a 3D look. ‘You can’t do a bad drawing of it, really,’ mused the officiating teacher, drifting over in paint-splattered smock, tea in hand. Small class of students bent over their work, completely absorbed, and we were much struck by the atmosphere of focused and calm artistry.

Big emphasis on classical antiquity and ancient history is such a pleasure to see. But the modern world is also very much in evidence throughout the curriculum. Excellent graphics classroom was full of punchy, inventive work by the students, and film studies and media also very successful. Photography is thriving here, and we were relieved to see the dark room still very much in use - ‘For the students, it’s not nostalgia, it’s a new thing.’ Textiles room an absolute treasure trove of fabrics, buttons and bows, inviting budding fashion creatives to dive right in.

We didn’t get the chance to speak to anyone from the lower school, but the sixth formers here are clearly very happy. They relish the freedom to think and develop for themselves and the emphasis laid on a collaborative approach, describing the sixth form experience as a ‘proper step between school and university’. ‘You force yourself to do a lot of work – and you end up accomplishing more.’ ‘The creative range here is unparalleled.’ ‘If you aren’t motivated to do work in your own time, you’ll fall behind. But if you have that drive, they’ll help you 100 per cent. In fact, they’ll help you anyway.’ ‘We’re expected to be creative and think differently. The teachers here are open to discussion and challenge, and they’re always willing to stay behind and help you.’

SEN provision is strong, and students told us they felt very well supported here. ‘The teachers are just great, and really helpful, and needing help isn’t an issue here’. ‘We try and support in the most subtle way possible,’ says Candida, ‘If a student has dyslexia, then their personal tutor will be a dyslexia specialist.’ School keen to emphasise, however, that it isn’t a special school and can’t support one-to-one teaching throughout the curriculum.

Games, options, the arts

LAMDA extremely popular and successful, and each crop of exam results brings plenty of distinctions at grade 8. Peripatetic music lessons also available throughout the school – ‘I can actually sing now!’ said a grateful student after commencing singing lessons here. Lower school does a range of sports every week including team games such as football and netball, although the emphasis is on enjoyment and fitness rather than competitive fixtures. Yoga also offered. Frequent trips to exhibitions and to places of beauty and culture both at home and abroad, as well as to theatres and musical events. Students encouraged to initiate projects if they wish to, and there have been a number of charitable and fundraising events of this kind.

On the whole, though, young people here are engaged full time in what at other schools is usually peripheral – film, fashion, music, art, drama - so there isn’t the demand for off-timetable activity that you’d find elsewhere. As one student put it, ‘There aren’t that many extracurricular subjects, because most people here want to focus on their A levels.’ Those seeking a full-on, UCAS-form-busting programme of opportunities should look elsewhere; the students we spoke to here were happy with the balance.

Background and atmosphere

Once the school was a sixth form college almost exclusively offering specialist arts teaching. Over the decades it's evolved into a more general provider of non-selective education at 13+ with a particular emphasis on the visual arts. It is not, nor does it aim to be, the fine arts equivalent of a specialist music school, and students are not selected on their artistic ability.

Now in its 40th year, the school is spread over multiple sites, all within a few minutes' walk of each other. The main building in Englands Lane is a former Victorian dairy: still flanked on all sides by grey and beige brickwork, its interior is a honeycomb of small corridors and classrooms. The cobbled main courtyard is the first thing people see, and it really is rather special. Beautifully adorned with shrubs, trees, potted flowers and wooden benches, the impression on a summer’s morning was one of shade and sunshine in a Tuscan village. The students make full use of it in the warmer months and say it’s amazing. ‘I fell in love with the school as soon as I saw it!’

Since 2015, the school has been owned by Dukes Education, which has enabled it to purchase a nearby former stables for turning into additional classrooms, but space remains an issue here. There’s no library, for instance – students use local public libraries instead – and sixth formers would love a common room of their own. But these privations haven’t made a dent in the atmosphere here, which is buzzy and cheerful. ‘We use the local cafés instead, and that pushes us to be more sociable,’ said one student. ‘The feeling at Fine Arts College is always welcoming, and I’m really loving being here,’ was another comment.

Pastoral care, well-being and discipline

Everyone is given a code of conduct to sign – which includes not making a mess, rather endearingly for an art school - so expectations are clear, but in the main there are few rules and no cause to break them. The school is run on mutual respect, and Candida Cave is proud of how well the students respond to this. ‘We haven’t had to exclude or suspend anyone for 10 years.’ Those who arrive exhausted and discouraged from different school environments quickly find their feet. Parents and children alike told us that this was a kind and accepting place. ‘Bullying is non-existent here.’

Teachers are addressed by their first names, and there’s no uniform for any of the year groups. Dress code is casual, with the only requirement being that the students must be decently and inoffensively attired. Prettily-appliquéd sweaters and fashionably-motifed sweatshirts abound, and there’s no shortage of pierced ears and noses. Nonetheless, anyone expecting to find the place a pushover will be quickly disabused. Students’ progress, both academic and pastoral, is comprehensively tracked. Everyone has a personal tutor whom they see every week for at least an hour. There are fortnightly reports so students can see how well they’re doing, and consistently low effort grades will swiftly result in interventions, including (for sixth formers) being made to drop a subject if they’re clearly not trying at it. Anyone who is more than 10 minutes late for a lesson isn’t allowed to join it until they’ve made the work up in a study space outside the classroom, ‘so I’m never late!’ commented a student; ‘it’s been really effective for me.’ Said another, ‘It’s a good idea, because after all, it is distracting when people are late.’

The college will admit school refusers and home-schooled if it believes they would benefit from what it has to offer, but does so on a trial basis and tracks their progress particularly closely; no term’s notice is required by the school from parents, but school also has the right to ask them to leave after half a term if it’s patently not going to work.

No school lunches. Students bring their own, or eat at local cafes (some of whom offer a discount to FAC students) with parental permission, and Englands Lane is patrolled by staff members throughout lunch break. ‘But quite a few celebrities’ children go there, so the paparazzi can be out in force when the students are coming and going,’ warned one mother. Students themselves unfazed by this, and just enjoy the independence. ‘It’s 100 per cent better than my last school – there’s no ordering about, just freedom and an ethos of mutual respect.’

Pupils and parents

Mostly, but not exclusively, British students, drawn mainly from a local radius, but some coming from as far away as south London, Essex and Watford. Many are seeking an alternative to boarding, selectivity or just the conformity required at a large school. Parents are relieved and grateful that they’ve found the place. 'My child is really happy there, and enjoying life so much more.’ Some international students, particularly post-GCSE.

Alumni include artist Robert Fry, actors Orlando Bloom and Helena Bonham-Carter, and guitarist and singer Johnny Borrell.

Entrance

Entry points at year 9, year 10 and year 12, and school admits around 12 annually to each of these year groups. Reference from current school is required, but no testing. All applicants are interviewed personally by Candida Cave for at least an hour; she looks for a sense that they’ve clicked with the school and what it has to offer – ‘they have to want to be educated here.’ If she’s unsure, she’ll ask another member of staff to interview them as well. School is happy to admit at any point in the academic year.

At 16+, school looks for a minimum of five GCSEs at grade 4 or above, but doesn’t make the offer of a place contingent upon this. ‘If they don’t have maths or English GCSE they must take fewer A levels and get these done.’

Exit

Around 15 per cent leave after GCSEs. The remainder move on after A levels to a wide range of destinations, including LSE, UCL, King’s College London, Edinburgh, the Courtauld Institute and Central St Martins. A trickle of Oxbridge successes, though none in 2019. The occasional student off overseas - two to art foundation in Madrid in 2019. Popular courses include history of art, art foundation and fine arts.

Money matters

Each year either one 100 per cent scholarship or two 50 per cent scholarships to existing Fine Arts College students who demonstrate outstanding achievement in academic, artistic or musical fields of study, as well as exceptional commitment and exemplary behaviour. Limited number of bursaries available to students who have previously been educated in the state system who would not otherwise be able to afford private education.

Our view

A haven of culture, creativity and kindness amidst the tumult of north London selective schools, and a route to success for those who have been disheartened hitherto. ‘I’ve had a really good time here, and I’ll be sad to leave,’ said a year 13 girl, and of the boys added, ‘It’s a really nice community. I actually don’t mind getting up in the mornings and going to school. And I’ve never said that before.’

Independent schools frequently offer IGCSEs or other qualifications alongside or as an alternative to GCSE. The DfE does not record performance data for these exams so independent school GCSE data is frequently misleading; parents should check the results with the schools.

Who came from where

Who goes where

Special Education Needs

Condition Provision for in school
ASD - Autistic Spectrum Disorder Y
Aspergers Y
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders Y
CReSTeD registered for Dyslexia
Dyscalculia
Dysgraphia
Dyslexia
Dyspraxia
English as an additional language (EAL)
Genetic
Has an entry in the Autism Services Directory
Has SEN unit or class
HI - Hearing Impairment
Hospital School
Mental health
MLD - Moderate Learning Difficulty
MSI - Multi-Sensory Impairment
Natspec Specialist Colleges
OTH - Other Difficulty/Disability
Other SpLD - Specific Learning Difficulty
PD - Physical Disability
PMLD - Profound and Multiple Learning Difficulty
SEMH - Social, Emotional and Mental Health
SLCN - Speech, Language and Communication
SLD - Severe Learning Difficulty
Special facilities for Visually Impaired
SpLD - Specific Learning Difficulty
VI - Visual Impairment

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